Turkey’s Politics and a Society Shaken by Earthquake

By: Younes Negah

Nearly 100 years ago, on October 29, 1923, the boundaries of modern Turkey were established from the ruins of the Ottoman Caliphate, which had been destroyed due to World War I. To commemorate this great victory, the Turkish people celebrate Republic Day on October 28th and 29th each year. 2023 marks the second century of independent Turkey, and is a significant year in the history of the country as the political parties and officials of the Turkish government have referred to it as the year of national ideals fulfillment. Major projects are planned for this year, and some political parties have declared this year’s elections as the time to revise the laws and constitution of Turkey. This year, a major election is coming up. In the last 20 years, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brought about drastic changes in the political system, government, and society. His presidency has changed the face of the country in many ways. His opponents argue that his policies lack the characteristics of a secular republic, claiming that Erdogan and his party have damaged the secular aspects of the republic by emphasizing the biased role of the president. However, his allies view his approach as the true essence of the republic, believing that the expansion of services and benefits to non-urban areas as well as the increase in the political role of the conservative and traditional classes are signs of development, justice, and progress.

For the past twenty years, Erdogan has had the chance to show his leadership skills and become a respected figure, but he is no longer the young man he was two decades ago. He is aware that the country is on the brink of the post-Erdogan era. To address the younger generation of Turkey and the natural transition of power, Erdogan declared in one of his speeches that he would be running for president one last time. His opponents seem to be more cautious this year, believing that the transfer of power should not be extended for another term. Consequently, the international campaign to support the victims of the earthquake that occurred on February 6th has become a great opportunity for these rivals to win the upcoming elections on May 14th.

An Underestimated Disaster

On February 6th, two powerful earthquakes (7.8 and 7.5 Richter) shook parts of Syria and southeastern Turkey within nine hours. This area is known to be prone to earthquakes, but such strong earthquakes have not occurred in the past 100 years. The last devastating earthquake in these areas was so long ago that it was hard for the Turkish government and society to believe that it had happened. Meral Aksener, the Wife of the leader of the opposing ‘Good Party,’ is a serious opponent of the ruling party. She is trying to challenge Erdogan in the upcoming elections in an alliance with the Republican People’s Party. For two days, while visiting the earthquake-affected areas, she criticized the performance of the government and Erdogan’s policies harshly. However, Aksener herself had to wait for hours. On the second and third days, she gradually realized the magnitude of the disaster and rallied her party to provide aid and participate in voluntary work. Aksener has documented her reactions on her Facebook page. Reviewing the reaction of Turkish politician and leader Meral Aksener to a national disaster can be helpful as an example. Aksener is a prominent opponent of the ruling Justice and Development Party, a nationalist party that follows the ideas of Kemal Atatürk and seeks to bring Turkey closer to Europe. This party has over 600,000 members, 37 representatives in the parliament, and more than a thousand representatives in municipal councils. It also controls 24 metropolitan districts across the country. Aksener, the leader of this party, posted a message on his Facebook page nearly two hours after the earthquake at 05:57 am that did not reflect the gravity of the disaster.

Mabel Aksener, like all politicians and government institutions, eventually came to understand the severity of the incident. In her first message, she expressed her condolences to all citizens and mentioned that the earthquake had occurred in Kahramanmaras and had also affected nearby cities. Later, at 13:06, she posted another message announcing the death of Benyamin Tek, the head of the office in Gaziantep, and his wife in the earthquake. This post did not reflect the gravity of the situation. It is said that the government agencies had initially assumed that it was a typical earthquake. However, half an hour later, Aksener posted another message, acknowledging the magnitude of the disaster. She wrote, “our country has been affected by a major earthquake, which is heartbreaking for all of us.” She then urged everyone to help and sympathize with the victims, and invited the people, especially the organizations of her party, to donate blood to the wounded.

Ten hours after the earthquake, Aksener, the leader of Turkey’s third largest and most well-known party, which has representatives all over the country, understood the severity of the disaster and the need for help. In a later post, Aksener reported the death of another party member’s family in the second earthquake in Malatya. She then shared the news of the death of Serhat Ozdemir, the head of the Good Party in Al-Bastan district, a neighborhood of Kahramanmaras, as well as the deaths of two other party members and the injury of several soldiers. However, she did not mention the large number of ordinary victims, possibly because there was not much information available about them. Instead, she only shared news about the deaths of her friends and influential people.

Meral Aksener and her party started their official volunteer work on the third day of the event. Until then, they had been waiting for the government to act and had only been sending aid and expressing their condolences. At the same time, she criticized the restrictions placed on social media, saying, “How can you limit communication when it is so desperately needed to report the needs of the victims? What kind of terrible acts are these? What kind of deception is this? Who are you afraid of, and why? Shame on you!”

The political tensions between the government and the opposition were so strong that the government decided to censor Twitter, overshadowing the coldness of politicians in the affected areas on the third day of the disaster.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is the leader of the Republican People’s Party, the largest opposition party in Turkey and the main challenger to Erdogan in the upcoming elections. His party follows the ideology of Kemal Ataturk and has 1,369,000 members, 600 of whom are members of the Turkish Parliament and 135 are party officials. They control 11 major cities, including Istanbul, and 241 smaller cities and districts, as well as 4,638 representatives in Turkish city councils. On that day, Kılıçdaroğlu released a video in which he expressed his dissatisfaction with the government’s response to the earthquake in Edana, Hatay, Iskenderun, Antakya, and other affected areas. He spoke about the extensive damage and promised that his party would do everything in their power to help. He was accompanied by several other mayors, including the mayor of Istanbul, and accused the government of failing to properly manage the distribution of humanitarian aid.

He stated that there was a lack of coordination between government institutions, municipalities, political institutions, and popular networks, and that many social institutions had not been able to reach the affected areas. He also criticized the government for not sending enough soldiers, saying that only 3,500 were present in Hatay the day before the rescue forces arrived. He blamed his political opponent, Erdogan, for the problems, claiming that he had held the country back for 20 years in terms of preventing the earthquake, and that he had no intention of meeting him.

Erdogan responded to the criticisms with strong language and stated that there were currently 21,200 soldiers, police officers, and gendarmes in Hatay province. He said, “Some malicious and dishonorable people have been spreading the false claim that they have not seen any soldiers, gendarmes, or police in Hatay.”

The following day, Kılıçdaroğlu posted on Facebook that the government had blocked social media, and instructed his colleagues to use a VPN to communicate. He wrote, “This administration has blocked social media, so we will hardly hear the voices of the victims. We know what you are trying to hide!” On Thursday night, the fourth day of the incident, Kılıçdaroğlu, who follows in the footsteps of Ataturk, showed people an official report from a few years ago about the government’s lack of preparation for a small earthquake. He called the report a document of the government’s admission of unpreparedness, and noted that the earthquake that occurred was much more severe. He said that the casualties were not only caused by the earthquake, but also by ineffective efforts and a lack of resources. He concluded his video by saying, “Erdogan, we will fight you until the end. It was our destiny to fight you.”

In a video message, Aksener noted that the government had been fighting natural disasters for the past 20 years, but that Erdogan’s autonomous system had replaced the government and wiped out the historical memory of the government’s efforts. She said that in the past, the government had trained 30,000 people between the ages of 15 and 25 to help when needed, but now there was no prepared and trained public force apart from the Disaster Management Department. She also noted that after four days, there still wasn’t enough force to help the victims, and accused Erdogan and his party of restricting the movement of municipalities and opposition parties instead of trying to unite with them to fight the disaster.

Since March 2003, Erdogan has been the Prime Minister and later the President of Turkey. He is known to be the most powerful head of state after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic, and has brought about major changes in the system, government, and Turkish society. The Justice and Development Party, which has 11 million supporters, has 286 representatives in the parliament and controls the municipalities of 15 big cities and 742 small towns and districts. Erdogan has denied the accusations against him, claiming that his government has a good record of fighting natural disasters and is now fully prepared to save citizens. In a speech on Wednesday, he confirmed that there were shortages, but added that arrangements had been made and the situation would soon be under control. To demonstrate that the crisis is being managed, on Thursday, February 9, Erdogan released the exact figures for destroyed apartments and the number of injured and deaths.


The people of Turkey have done an impressive job by volunteering in government centers and airports to help. Business owners, industrialists, families, educational centers, and companies have donated money and provided food and clothing to the victims, and civilians have shown their support by displaying the Turkish flag over shops and houses. Every day, shipments are sent from all over the country to the earthquake victims. The public has shown great self-confidence and motivation in aiding the victims, but the destruction is far too great for them to handle alone. Saving lives and helping the millions of homeless people requires professional work, extraordinary management, and expertise. Blocked roads, bad weather, and the passing of time have reduced the chance of success in rescuing those still trapped. Experts say that the first 72 hours are crucial for saving those under the rubble. The media has reported and promoted every rescue as a miracle, and when someone is seen alive under the ruins, the rescuers often fall to their knees and cry. It is said that this earthquake has permanently changed a part of Turkey, which is larger than several countries in terms of population and geographical area.

Exploring the Impact of Earthquakes on Politics and Society

At the end of its one-hundred-year republic, Turkey faced unprecedented crises. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the country’s economy, the war in Ukraine has had a profound impact on the Turkish market and manufacturing industries, and the relationship between Turkey and the European Union has been declining in recent years. Additionally, the government’s monetary policies, which are said to reduce the economy’s dependence on foreign currency (dollars) and have many opponents within the government and rival parties, have caused the Turkish lira to significantly decrease in value against foreign currencies. Economic experts say that this policy has significantly reduced investor interest and caused a record low inflation rate.

In the last century, Turkey has made great progress. Its Human Development Index (which measures health, access to knowledge, and employment) is higher than any other country in the region and is close to that of developed countries. Its gross margin is estimated to be close to one trillion dollars. Its infrastructure and industries have been modernized, and Turkish products have a good market in the region and some European countries. Despite its long history of political monopoly, in which an army or party has held power and thus controlled the country’s economy, there are strong popular institutions and social organizations in Turkish society. This has resulted in a larger and more powerful middle class. All of this has made society more flexible and empowered, so that it can rebuild the affected areas. This is something that international analysts, government politicians, and domestic opponents all agree on, and it is a task that society and the government can accomplish in this century.

The recent earthquake has had a major impact on the country’s politics. If the government does not act quickly to address the full extent of the disaster, it could lead to increased dissatisfaction in areas that are traditionally seen as the political base of the Justice and Development Party. Even if the government uses all its resources efficiently and receives the necessary international aid, it will take time to reach the victims and rebuild the region, meaning that millions of people will suffer in the meantime. On Thursday, February 9, the President of Turkey declared the earthquake to be the biggest natural disaster in the region’s history, and reported that Kahramanmaras, the main center of the earthquake, and Hatay province had suffered the most damage. He also reported that the number of casualties had reached 16,546 by the evening of February 9th, but this number had risen to 19,000 by Friday. The number of injured had been reported as 660,132, but this had risen to 77,712 by Friday. Erdogan also said that 6,444 buildings had been destroyed in the region, which covers an area of 500 square kilometers and is home to 13.5 million people. Erdogan and his party are trying to use this tragedy as a political opportunity by carrying out impressive activities and rapid reconstruction, while the opposing parties are attempting to highlight the weaknesses of Erdogan’s government and prepare the ground for his removal from power.

Questions are being asked in the media and political circles about whether the government will postpone the elections in order to lessen the impact of this disaster on Erdogan’s political future. It is known that even three months from now, the effects of this tragedy will still be felt, and three months is not enough time to restore the situation to normal. Additionally, the reconstruction of 10 cities and hundreds of villages, which is supposed to be completed this year, could be used as a way for political gain and to gain favor with the public. Billions of dollars of national and international aid are needed for this. Therefore, it may not be politically wise to leave power in a situation where the new government is busy with reconstruction. This gives Erdogan and his party even more motivation to win or delay the elections. The opposition has the same motivation, and Kılıçdaroğlu has already declared, “Erdogan, we will fight with you until the end!”

Societies often become divided when major events occur, and extremism increases as a result. Currently, Turkey is facing two dangerous forms of extremism: extreme nationalism and religious extremism. For many years, Turkey has been a gateway between Europe and the Middle East for extremists, and in the last decade, some of the most violent sectarian and religious wars have taken place on its eastern borders. If the thousands of families affected in the less privileged area are not provided with support soon, won’t the potential for radical tendencies and the influence of extremist groups among them increase? On the other hand, won’t extreme nationalist forces feel that their national pride has been damaged and that they should take action?

This earthquake occurred at an inopportune time. It is hoped that the Turkish people will be able to manage the aftermath of this event with wisdom and strength, and continue to progress towards development and away from extremism. A Turkey that is both developed and free from extremism would be beneficial for the region and the world.